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Ric Cunningham grew up in Guilford but later found himself sharing the stage with Joe Cocker. Photograph courtesy of Ric Cunningham )
John McCurry took his self-taught guitar skills to New York City and found himself touring and recording with Cyndi Lauper before teaming up with the likes of John Waite, Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand, David Bowie, and others. Photograph by Kelley Fryer )
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Learning a musical instrument is hard. Breaking into the music business is hard. Becoming a touring or studio musician for a major recording artist is often just a pipe dream. For a couple of locally born musicians, that dream is a reality.
While John McCurry always enjoyed music growing up, he never had aspirations of becoming a rockstar. He grew up in Guilford in the '60s and '70s, remembering the small rural community fondly.
After high school, McCurry got a job at a Goodyear Tire shop. One day, he went in and told an older coworker about a dream he had. That dream and the conversation that followed changed McCurry's path in life.
"In my dream, I could play the guitar and found it very easy – like I could play anything," says McCurry. "A few days after I told my friend – this blue-collar worker – he came in to work and handed me a Les Paul guitar he had bought for me. It was a total shock. I started playing at night and taught myself to play and within six months, I could play songs off of records. I like to joke that I got as good as I am today in the first six months."
McCurry played in several local bands, taking the stage at New Haven's Toad's Place a few times, which was "a big deal," according to McCurry. In 1980, his then girlfriend wanted to pursue art in New York, so the couple moved to the city where he played in several other bands on Bleeker Street and at places that were "a big deal back then."
In 1982, McCurry received word through an acquaintance that a local musician named Cyndi Lauper was holding auditions. She had finished most of her album "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and was looking for members for her tour band.
"Back then, I had bright red hair and I think she liked my look more than anything," laughs McCurry. "She had me learn some songs, we went into the studio and I sang on some songs, and we toured, and 'Girls' just took off. By the end of the year, we were playing Radio City, which neither of us had done. It was fantastic, and she was really good to work with."
The album saw several number one hits, and the band not only toured but made its rounds through late-night television as well, performing for the likes of Johnny Carson, Dick Clark, and others. McCurry spent almost two years touring with Lauper and then began work on her studio albums.
McCurry then went on to work with John Waite, cowriting his hit "Missing You" and touring with him. After the tour, McCurry worked with a number of artists, including Billy Joel, Eddie Rabbit, Barbara Streisand, David Bowie, Michael Bolton, and Alice Cooper, co-writing his hit song "Poison."
"As a guitarist, background singer, and songwriter, that got me going," McCurry says. "People wanted me to work with their bands and that launched my whole career."
McCurry found success with his work in the studio and has a lot of gold and platinum records "put away in storage from those times." He also spent time touring with several artists including a Europe tour with David Bowie after "Glass Spider." He loved both touring and studio work.
"Each are very, very different, but while doing one, I always missed the other," says McCurry. "When you're on tour, after about three months, you get tired of playing the same show. You know you're blessed to be doing it, but it's hard to do it night after night. I missed the studio and being home. Then when you do record after record, you say 'I really wish I could be traveling right now.' The grass is always greener with that."
One of McCurry's favorite times was spent working with Julian Lennon, son of former Beatle John Lennon, playing on 90 percent of his records and touring extensively with him through 2001.
"He's still putting out records," says McCurry. "I worked with three of the four Beatles – Ringo, George, and Paul – who wanted to support Julian's career, and that was great fun."
Over the past several years, McCurry's focus has shifted to his own music as he and his girlfriend Sarah Schmidt have formed a band called Sweet Lorraine. It has been an adjustment for him moving more into the spotlight.
"I always felt bolder behind John Waite or David Bowie – I've always loved being Keith Richard not Mick Jagger, and felt best in a support role," McCurry says. "Now with Sarah, this is the first time in my life where we write together and sing together, and it feels good."
In January, McCurry's music brought him back toward his hometown with a show at the Madison Beach Hotel where he played several songs that he's worked on or written as well as a number of Sweet Lorraine's songs with Schmidt.
"I love going back there – I have some old friends kicking around," says McCurry. "I like seeing how the area has changed and grown. I've been in the city for so many years and it's nice going back because I miss that vibe there."
In addition to working on his own music, McCurry is now enjoying watching his daughter navigate the music scene in New York. He has seen many changes in the industry over the years from technology to social media to changes in the recording industry.
"I can't help her much now because the scene is so different – it's not totally undoable, but it's a different way to go," says McCurry. "Today, there may not be the same immediate gratification where I moved to New York City and hooked up with a big star, but there are a lot of kids who are really talented and doing retro stuff. Follow your heart, follow your dreams.
"I was pretty lucky – I moved to New York and didn't struggle for more than 10 months," says McCurry. "While it was happening, it didn't seem real, and I didn't let myself feel it for a lot of years, but I have realized it since. When you get older, it's easier to reflect."
Like McCurry, Ric Cunningham grew up in Guilford, but his world was always surrounded by music. His father, Donald Cunningham, was the music director at Guilford High School through the early 1980s and from the time he started school, Cunningham played instruments, starting with the trumpet – an instrument his dad played – in kindergarten before moving on to the saxophone when he got to fifth grade at Calvin Leete.
Throughout high school, Cunningham continued his music, playing with both the band and the jazz band before graduating in 1973. He also sang in the school choir and his church choir.
"Music was a gigantic part of my growing up life," says Cunningham. "Music was a big part of life at home as well. In addition to practicing and rehearsing, there were students taking lessons at the home that I grew up in."
While Cunningham learned classical music and jazz material at school, he loved R&B and rock and roll. The town rec center used to host concerts and shows on Saturday nights and Cunningham remembers loving shows by the Wildweeds with Al Anderson and what would become NRBQ as well as what would later become the Scratch Band before becoming the original Saturday Night Live band.
Cunningham also loved seeing shows at local "classic venues" like Toad's Place and Shaboo Inn in Willimantic in the 1970s and 1980s, which would bring in national and international talent.
After graduating from Guilford High School, Cunningham studied briefly at West Chester University outside Philadelphia for classical studies before transferring to Berklee College of Music in 1975 for jazz and contemporary music. He graduated in 1978, playing in several bands on the east coast before moving to Los Angeles where he began working with Joe Cocker in the mid-1980s.
"Several world tours and playing on one of his albums would be my musical highlight," says Cunningham. "Being in front of 20,000 to 100,000 fans is quite a thrill."
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Cunningham had a recording studio in New York City where he wrote, recorded, and produced music for television and film. He now lives and works in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the winter and performs in Connecticut during the summers. Cunningham specializes in contemporary lounge music, smooth jazz, and pop music and is working on his second CD.
"I had hoped to play with a big artist when I was growing up, to experience that level of success, and I was lucky enough to achieve that goal," says Cunningham. "It was being at the right place at the right time, but also being ready for the opportunity if it presented itself."
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